It was 3am. He was awakened by the persistent crying of the baby in the next room. As he reluctantly got out of bed, the crying increased — how long had she been crying? He wondered. Five, maybe 10 minutes, he couldn’t tell.
He got to the baby’s room, gently lifted her from her crib and tried to soothe her back to sleep, but that didn’t work. He sang all the nursery rhymes he could remember, but she just cried and cried.
He checked her diaper, it was dry. He checked her temperature, it was normal. He warmed some milk and fed her. One full bottle later, she was still crying. Was she sick? How was he supposed to know? As he paced around the house holding her, she eventually fell asleep again. Time check — 5am.
Often times, when people talk about single parenthood, single mothers get the most recognition. But, what about single fathers? Are they the unsung heroes?
No one wishes to raise a child on their own, however, with life’s afflictions and today’s regular family breakups, parents are increasingly being thrust into the single parenthood zone.
30-year-old Patrick Mugabi says his marriage was all bliss until his wife died in a fatal accident, leaving him to take care of their three-year-old daughter. Parenthood, he says, took a drastic turn.
“Taking on full responsibility was like throwing me in the deep end of a swimming pool. One minute, I was a happy 28-year-old man and the next, I was singlehandedly raising a toddler and worrying about things like whether to braid her hair or not, and whose washrooms to take her to.
“My first lesson was that I couldn’t do everything for her. I would call my mother for assistance and my greatest resource was a good nanny. I was also aware that I was her parent and was thus solely responsible for whatever goes on with her life,” he says.
“Finding a good nanny in Kenya is a hassle. A single father has a particular set of needs so it is harder. You need someone who is older and who has raised a child before,” he says.
David Mwesigye, a procurement officer, had it rough after his divorce; his wife left to seek for greener pastures abroad.
“My first year as a single father of my then six-year-old son was a struggle, especially because I had to balance work and raising him. I had to prepare him for school, drop him off and pick him up on time, while also completing work before rushing to school,” he says.
As he struggles to balance the two, he says his work performance and social life have declined, yet with the costs of living rapidly escalating, adequately meeting both physical and emotional needs of his son singlehandedly is becoming more demanding.
Fred Kasigwa, a father of a teenage boy, says that single fatherhood can be challenging but building a relationship with the child makes it easier. He adds that it’s never easy being a single father, trying to juggle a full-time job with family life, but it’s tougher when society sets expectations for mothers that their male counterparts are never expected to live up to.
“Before I became a widower, I remember wondering whether women are just better at being parents than men, but my wife had taught me that there are no female chores or male chores. When she cooked, I changed diapers, and vice versa. It was about doing what needed to be done and now, as a single dad, I find the bar set for men regarding parenting amazingly low.
“I do all the stuff that single mums do, yet I often find myself applauded for doing even the most basic parental chores. Legally, the law is uniform but in reality, society is harder on men hence, they cannot enjoy similar favours,” he says.
Andrea Doucet, a researcher at Brock University, Canada, studied stay-at-home fathers for 20 years. He found out that “men definitely have this human capacity to connect with, respond to, and deeply nurture children of all ages. “What has been slower [are] the social judgements that men can in fact do this, especially with infants.”
However, Joselyn Mukarurinda, a counsellor in Kigali, argues that single fatherhood can be difficult because ‘men are wired differently.’
“Men have a one-track mind unlike women who can multi-task,” she says, “Single fathers should have a strong support system like family and friends in order to balance work and family.”
I know many men who are incredible nurturers. They are good at cheering up children, and, lighting up their world for as long as I have known them. In my experience, however, when the going gets tough, they often pass the child off to the woman.
The paternal instinct
If mothers alone are said to carry the responsibilities based on maternal instinct, can single fathers feel that they too are capable?
Like Mwesigye, Richard Kagarama, a single father of two girls, has learnt that it’s not as hard as single fathers would like to think.
“Raising young girls takes a lot. I chose to look after my children, listen to them and in that way, get to know them. The more time we spend together, the stronger our bond grows. By the time they were teenagers, we had a very open relationship and they would talk to me about anything. I don’t disparage the concept of a motherly instinct, but there’s also a fatherly instinct” he says.
Kagarama, however, agrees that single parenting has taught him that while he can raise his daughters, he cannot be their mother. The only thing he can do to try to fill this void is have female role models around her, like his sisters or female cousins and friends, so they can feel ‘the touch of a female.’
“Mother’s Day was always mindful of what we never had; a mother, and holidays were less than cheery in a home. I remember sometimes in the middle of the night feeling stressed at being alone, faced with a child spiking a high fever, wondering how I’d drive her to a hospital while comforting her at the same time,” he says.
Barry Hewlett, a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington State who researches childhood, said that both men and women can be sensitive and excellent caregivers of children. The only “obligate” responsibility for caregiving that’s innate to women is breastfeeding. And those early months and that connection to the child naturally secure a bond and a desire to continue that care. It is, at the end of the day, practice making perfect.
Tips for single fathers
Kagarama says that single fatherhood may seem hard or even impossible in the beginning but it is worth it.
“If you are parenting a child alone, you can learn from all the helpful resources out there. Also, get close to your child as much as you can because it is the only way you can know them.
“There were times when I wondered what it would be like when my girls became teenagers. Now, I am confident that they will go through life unharmed because we have learned to have a good and trustworthy relationship. I want them to grow up feeling like they can tell me anything,” he says.
Mukarurinda also advises single fathers to learn that parenting is a journey, not an event.
Away from the public glare, many single fathers live under very difficult conditions, often unable to play their role as parents because of many reasons. However, once in a while, ask a mother or sister for help if you are raising a girl. This will help one feel secure and lessen the stress of uprightly raising a girl. Also, ensure that you spend not only quality but quantity time with your children to help with the bonding process,” she says.
Whether it’s getting someone to watch the kids while you exercise, run out to do errands, or you simply need someone to talk to when you feel overwhelmed, single fathers will always need help. While it’s tempting to try to handle everything alone, it is better to ask friends and family members for help or hire a trusted nanny.
Clare Tibenda, Teacher
Children have neither the emotional capacity nor the life experience to act as substitute companions and with the absence of one parent; it’s sometimes tempting to rely heavily on children for comfort. Instead of expecting help from your kids, or expressing your frustrations to them too often, seek adult friends and family members to talk to.
Stuart Muhwezi, Trader
No matter the workload, set aside time each day to be with your kids because that’s what parenting is all about. Spend quality time playing, reading or simply going for a walk. The most important thing is to focus on your relationship as a family.
Rebekah Kunda, Businesswoman
It’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the responsibilities and demands of single parenthood, on top of experiencing the pain of divorce or the death of a spouse. It’s important, however, to maintain a positive attitude and set aside personal time.
Joseph Kanamugire, Businessman